Wednesday, August 27, 2008


A World Heritage site with beautifully restored Spanish architecture, Cartagena is a wonderful place to work for my fellowship. The scene above is what I see when I go to lunch or stroll around the historic city.

The old city is surrounded by a stone and corral wall, which the Spanish constructed over a period of 200 years (from the late 1500s to the late 1700s) to protect the city against pirate attacks. The wall remains remarkably intact, with only one section removed in the early 1900s for modernization. Much of the downtown thus remains behind the fortress walls.
Behind those walls are narrow streets with colorful colonial homes. It covers a quite large area; it's easy to become a bit disoriented wandering the streets.
There are many places to explore, with fortresses, cathedrals and monasteries (above) throughout the city.
The main cathedral of Cartagena.
Outside of the historic city, Cartagena is growing rapidly. There is a lot of development on a peninsula that juts out into the sea, called Boca Grande. We live in this neighborhood, which is largely apartments and beach hotels. It is about a 30 minute walk from here to the office.
The beach is only a block away in Boca Grande, and there are other nice beach areas on nearby islands. A marine national park is about an hour by boat away, and The Nature Conservancy is working to improve management of such national parks (more on this on Friday). The beach above is a few miles outside of Cartagena, a very peaceful spot.
This past weekend, we visited a nearby volcano. It no longer spews lava but still contains about liquid mud about a mile deep. We climbed into it and despite the depth of the mud, bobbed around it like apples in water. It was a strange sensation and overall a bizarre experience.
It's been a wonderful place to live and work for the past couple of weeks. Cartagena's many charms are becoming more well known around the world, as evidenced by the extensive development in the beach areas. Hopefully the city can benefit from this without losing its history, culture and natural features.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Walk in the Park

Parque Centenario is a city park located just a few blocks from my office, in the heart of downtown Cartagena. Despite being a very popular spot, I can often find some interesting wildlife roaming around. Red-tailed squirrels (above) are the most common. They behave much like our park squirrels.
I've seen a couple of three-toed sloths in trees. I'm not sure how they got here--the park is in the middle of the city, surrounded by roads and buildings on each side.

Tamarin monkeys live in several family groups. They can be easily spotted darting through the trees, especially early in the morning before most people show up.
The green iguanas graze on grass and flowers; when I get too close, they dash up the trees. We've also seen iguanas in wilder parts of Colombia.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Plastic bags and monkeys

Making mochillas out of recycled plastic bags has provided an viable industry for small communities in Colombia and Bolivia, significantly lessening the need for people to clear forest and poach wildlife. Proyecto Titi, an organization dedicated to preserving the titi monkey (also known as the cotton-topped tamarin), worked with the community to help set up the project.
Children collect plastic bags from homes around the area to use in making the mochillas. Many of these bags would have otherwise been discarded in the countryside. The bags are then cut into a long, thin strip, to be crocheted in mochillas.

The plastic bags are then crocheted into the mochilla--which make a very nice handbag or even for carrying groceries. Each mochillas consists of 120-140 plastic bags. They are marketed in the United States and Europe.

Each is quality tested with a heavy, solid wooden block to ensure it can carry heavy weights. They are available in a variety of styles and colors.
The mochilla industry has transformed the community. Only four years ago, it had high unemployment. Today, the community is benefiting from the industry. People have been able to put floors in their homes and make them more liveable. They celebrate a "Day of the Titi" each year, where a titi queen is crowned. This year's recipient (above) was crowned two weeks ago. The children also have a three month course on the titi monkey, and a school group performs dances and songs about the monkey.

It has become a full community effort: Kids and men collect the bags, and the women transform them into the beautiful mochillas. It has significantly reduced pressure to clear forest at El Ceibal outside of Cartagena, one of the best remaining tracts of tropical dry forest--and a stronghold for the titi monkey.